It’s All about Context

“Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC..I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.” These are the reported words of the president of my college, a month or so back, when he thought he was having a private breakfast conversation and wound up being overheard and live tweeted by someone at a nearby table.

Several of the things that this administrator said–and he never disputed saying any of them–are statements he probably wishes he could reel back in. A spokesman for the college noted that the tweets included comments lacking necessary context.

Some of my peers howled at the “context” defense. After all, doesn’t everyone, caught in an embarrassing situation protest that their words were taken out of context? I suppose they do, but then the spokesman didn’t exactly say the words were “taken out of context.” He said they lacked the necessary context.

What’s the difference? When we read a series of isolated quotations that were taken from an actual spoken conversation, we lose a great deal of the surrounding material. We lose the tone of voice of the speaker. We lose the things said by others involved in the conversation and the tone of voice that went into those. We lose all aspects of the situation. There’s a word for those things: context.

This man’s statements were unfortunate but presenting them in isolation, written when they were spoken, is unfair and borderline dishonest. Was he being goaded? Was his adversary, an elected official, saying things just as strident that went unreported? Without the context, we can’t know.

You probably don’t care about the politics of a community college in the Kansas City metro, but context is something that should always concern us. Specifically, I’d like to examine context as we read God’s Word. Let’s take an example from Job 15:20-22:

A wicked person writhes in pain all his days,
throughout the number of years reserved for the ruthless.
Dreadful sounds fill his ears;
when he is at peace, a robber attacks him.
He doesn’t believe he will return from darkness;
he is destined for the sword.

So bad things happen to bad people, right? They’re not just herded off to the left with the goats at the last judgment; according to this, they’re miserable throughout their lives. If you’re suffering, you must be bad. Hey, don’t blame me. It’s right there in the Bible.

The problem here is that these are the words of Eliphaz the Temanite, words that Job, in the next chapter, dismisses as empty. Read in the context of the broader drama that is the conversation between Job and his friends, it makes sense, but read in isolation, out of context, it teaches something contrary to the Bible’s overall message.

Context is important. In recent weeks I’ve spent excruciating time looking at Psalm 118:24 word by word. That’s fine, but if my reading ignores the surrounding context, then I’m doing the Word an injustice.